The Philippine Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that a swarm of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats around a South China Sea island claimed by Manila is a clear violation of the sovereign territory of the Philippines.
The Philippines lodged a formal protest with China over what it described as a “suspected maritime militia” gathered around Thitu Island. Philippine military officials said the Chinese boats are mostly fishing trawlers, but some of them spend a suspicious amount of time floating off the coast of the island without doing any fishing. Filipino fishermen complain the Chinese boats are blocking their access to fishing grounds near Thitu.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it believes the Chinese flotilla has “coercive objectives,” essentially accusing China of slowly invading and annexing the island with a fleet of up to 275 ships.
Philippine military officials noted that China’s “maritime militia” force is technically composed of civilians, but they have been given “paramilitary training” with small arms and are “occasionally complemented by the Chinese Coast Guard” and even People’s Liberation Army Navy warships.
Analysts refer to the arrangement of a huge “civilian” flotilla backed up by a few armed vessels around a contested island as China’s “cabbage strategy.” At least one Chinese frigate has been spotted near Thitu this year.
Thitu Island, known as Pagasa to Filipinos, is part of the disputed Spratly Island chain. Other nations, including Taiwan and Vietnam, have territorial claims in the region, but the Chinese claim the entire area is theirs and ignore all international rulings to the contrary.
Roughly a hundred people currently live on Thitu, which was artificially enhanced to support a small airstrip. Both China and the Philippines have been developing tourism on and around the island to bolster their competing claims of ownership.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been generally submissive to Chinese territorial claims because he wishes to cultivate business ties with Beijing and does not believe his country can effectively resist Chinese claims, was downright belligerent in drawing a line around the island, which he insisted “belongs to us.”
“I assure you, unless China wants a war with us, I will not allow them to occupy Pagasa,” he declared.
Australia’s News.com on Tuesday quoted Alexander Neill of the International Institute for Strategic Studies judging that Duterte has allowed China to get away with too much, for too long, to effectively resist the “straightforward intimidation tactic” it is using on Thitu Island.
Neill said Beijing has been “emboldened” by the lack of effective Philippine resistance to its probing tactics and is confident Duterte will ultimately “dismiss the threat by China to Philippines territory.”
Chinese officials insisted they are aware of no maritime militia activity near Thitu Island but would investigate the matter.
“We have been handling this issue through friendly and diplomatic channels so you don’t have to worry about whether there will be any kind of outbreak of conflict or not,” China’s ambassador to the Philippines said on Monday.